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  • January 28, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Crimes and Misdemeanors on Elvis Presley Boulevard

    by Sam Hutchins

    We drove up and down Elvis Presley Boulevard several times without seeing anything we really liked. The motels were plentiful enough but not distinct in any way. The edge of a hangover and a gray sky had me in a dark mood. Things only got grimmer as a light rain started to fall. I found myself quoting Travis Bickle in my ongoing internal dialogue. What a depressing environment. Even Graceland looked pretty low-rent from the avenue. Countless notes and keepsakes had been affixed to the fence and left there to wither and die.

    We passed one place several times before it caught our eye. A gravel driveway zig-zagged up a hill, ending in a patchwork fence. The roadway was lined by the stumps of what must have been a dozen pretty substantial trees, and the scraggly tufts of grass were dying in the wet mud. It looked like a toxic waste dump more than anything else. There was no sign but if there were I imagine it would read “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” We pulled in and made our way up to the fence more out of morbid curiosity than anything else. Pulling around the bend we found ourselves in a courtyard of what was indeed some sort of motel. Several ramshackle buildings formed a ring around the small lot, with a sign indicating that one of them was the office. Kar Wai smiled.

    “This is good. See if we can get in a room.”

    Hopping out of the truck I found myself grateful for the rain. At least it kept the rank smell down a bit. The scent was a mixture of mildew and despair. I made my way over to the battered screen door and knocked for a while. Eventually an emaciated looking Indian fellow opened up and motioned me in. He was cooking something that smelled beyond awful on a small hot plate and watching “I Love Lucy” on a black-and-white television. I started on in my standard spiel and got pretty far into it before I realized the smile on his face was one of total incomprehension. The phrase “grinning like an idiot” comes to mind.

    “Do you speak English?”

    Nothing. I held up my camera.

    “We take pictures. Photographs. Okay?”

    I pantomimed shooting pictures with the camera. Still nothing. Screw this, I couldn’t take the smell of the room any more. Dipping into my jacket pocket I fished out my police badge (how I acquired that is another story entirely).

    “Police. I’m going to need to take a look at one of your rooms.”

    Reaching past him I removed a numbered key from one of the hooks on the wall. He smiled even harder, if that was possible, and continued staring at me. I cleared out to head for the truck. Stepping into the lot I saw someone had gotten there before me.

    A tall, very skinny white woman dressed in a plaid schoolgirl type miniskirt was leaning in the window chatting with Darius. As I got closer it became clear that she was no stranger to meth. Christ, I can’t leave these guys alone for a second. I strode purposefully to her.

    “Beat it Sister, we don’t want any.”

    She took her time turning and giving me as nasty a look as I remember receiving before ambling away and back into her room.

    “What does thees mean, ‘Do I want a date?’” Darius asked through the open window. Between the rain and all the rest I was well out of patience.

    “It means she will let you stick your dick in her if you pay her money. She’s a hooker.”

    I felt bad when I saw that all three looked legitimately surprised, both at the tone and content of my statement. Trying to recover I held up the key.

    “C’mon, you want to see a room?”

    I found the shack that corresponded to the number on the key fob and let them in. The interior was just as nasty as the outside appearance would suggest. Of course Kar Wai loved it. As disgusting as the place was, I did appreciate him digging it, in a perverse way. The man certainly marches to his own drummer. And this was one of those so-ugly-it’s-almost-beautiful situations, sort of like Mimi Rogers. Kar Wai had Stephane pose in various positions while he photographed the room.

    “Something is missing here. Sam, can you get that woman back? I want her to model for me.”

    “The hooker? Really? Not sure she’ll go for it.”

    Blank stare.

    “She’ll want money.”

    “Fine, pay her.”

    I wondered just how the accounting department would feel about a receipt for the services of a meth-addled whore doing some stand-in work. Have to worry about that later. I went to fetch her.

    Stepping back out into the rain I realized I had no idea which room she had gone into. Orienting myself based on the truck’s position, I had a general idea but was not at all certain. There were four rooms in the direction she had gone. I took my best guess and went to the door. Leaning in I could hear a television blaring inside. Maybe I had it right. I banged away for quite some time before the door opened a crack. But it wasn’t the woman. Far from it, actually. Instead I was faced with a very big, very black, and very unhappy man. What the hell, might as well go for it.

    “Sorry to bother you pal. I’m looking for the woman who was just out here talking to us. Tall, thin gal, in a plaid skirt?”

    I put on my corniest smile when I spoke. He maintained his angry glare and said nothing. Absolute silence from him. At least he didn’t shut the door on me. I rolled right on with it, too late to stop now.

    “I work for a very famous filmmaker. Name’s Wong Kar Wai. Chinese fellow. We want to take some pictures of her. We’d be happy to pay her for her time.”

    I flashed a little green. This time he did shut the door on me. Slammed it, actually. I figured it was in my best interest not to pursue the matter any further. Still not sure if I was at the right room or not. It certainly wasn’t the woman who answered the door but he may well have been her business manager. In any case I’m simply not a dedicated enough employee to have bothered trying the other rooms. I returned to the guys and told them she wasn’t interested. Kar Wai and Darius seemed genuinely disappointed.

    “Will it help if I speak to her?” Darius helpfully volunteered.

    I was tempted for just a moment to send Darius to the door I had just knocked on. The comedy potential was there, but the possibility of him being shot several times also existed. I really like the man and that would be a terrible career move.

    “Noooo, she definitely is not interested.”

    We finished up in the room and packed our gear up. As we walked to the car another Indian gentleman approached me. This guy was both better dressed and fed than the guy I took the key from. He spoke passable English.

    “Excuse me, officer, is everything OK? I am the manager of the motel.”

    Heh, I’d forgotten what I’d done to get us access.

    “Yes, it’s fine. You passed inspection. You’ll receive a letter soon. Nice place you have here.”

    He beamed.

    “Why thank you, nice to hear. My employee is good to you?”

    “Yes, he was exceptionally helpful. Good man you have there.”

    “Thanks. His English is not so well but he will be learning.”

    As I got into the truck I couldn’t resist one last question. Waving my arm at the stumps that once were a dozen mighty oaks I put it to him.

    “What happened to the trees?”

    “Ah, leaves everywhere. And they blocked the view from the road. Much better without them.”

    I nodded my agreement and we went on our way.

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

  • January 26, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: On the Road

    by John Farr

    There are tons of road trip films out there; here are three you might have missed.


    Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a successful director of Hollywood fluff who decides he wants to make a serious picture about “real world” suffering. Disguising himself as a tramp, the earnest but naive Sullivan hits the road with a ridiculous entourage provided by his cynical studio bosses. Eventually, he meets a down-on-her-luck actress (Veronica Lake) and learns the hard way how poverty dampens, but doesn’t extinguish, the human spirit.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Widely considered the greatest of Sturges’s classic 1940s films, “Sullivan’s Travels” is a stunning hybrid, blending giddy slapstick and razor-sharp humor with grim, unblinking social realism. McCrea and Lake make a fun pair, comically and romantically, while Robert Greig is a hoot as Sullivan’s droll butler. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Sturges concocting this incisively scripted, beautifully directed Hollywood satire, which ultimately has a lot to say about the restorative power of laughter.


    Midnight Run (1988)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Modern-day bounty hunter Jack Walsh (Robert DeNiro) has a colorful career, but nothing could prepare him for Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin), a mob accountant on the lam. It seems Jonathan embezzled a bundle from his crooked bosses, gave the money to charity, then managed to jump bail. Jack first embarasses the authorities by succeeding where they’ve failed: he nabs Jonathan. Now he’ll be amply compensated if he can get Jonathan from the east to the west coast in one piece. But given the long list of neuroses afflicting Jonathan, and with both the FBI and the mafia interested in meeting the sensitive money-man en-route, Jack will have to earn every penny.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    “Run” achieves ideal balance between comedy and action, creating pure, adrenalized entertainment. DeNiro and Grodin project surprisingly strong chemistry as polar opposites thrown together by fate. Their inspired interaction elevates the movie well above the standard “buddy” picture. Joe Pantoliano stands out as Jack’s nervous boss. Fast moving, cross-country fun.


    Transamerica (2005)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Just a week before pre-operative transsexual Bree Osbourne (Felicity Huffman), formerly Stanley, is about go under the knife to complete her male-to-female transformation, she learns that she has a 17-year-old son named Toby (Kevin Zegers), who’s in trouble with the law. Encouraged by her therapist, Margaret (Elizabeth Peña), to come to grips with her past, Bree bails Toby out of jail and takes him on a cross-country road trip to Los Angeles.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Expertly handled by first-time director Tucker, this funny, touching film belongs to a tradition of beautifully observed movies about nontraditional American families. Huffman is riveting to watch, especially in the scenes with her disapproving mother, Elizabeth (Fionnula Flanagan). But it is her rapport with Zegers, perfect as the troubled, miserable Toby, that gives the film its heart and soul, especially as he believes Bree is a goody-goody church type-not his father. Their trip-so often the arc of growth in great road films-is mutually nourishing and eye-opening. Settle in with Transamerica for a frank, heartfelt outing.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • January 26, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Physical Transformations

    by John Farr

    Films with characters that require their actors to undergo eye-popping physical transformations.


    Little Big Man (1970)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Arthur Penn’s incomparable western epic details the (fictional) reminiscences of Jack Crabb, the last remaining survivor of Custer’s Last Stand. The expansive story sounds more like the lives of ten men, as Jack gets adopted by Cheyenne Indians, then assimilates to white, and finally goes back and forth between the two races, while encountering Western characters Wild Bill Hickok and of course, General Custer himself.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Part comedy, part stinging commentary on our treatment of the Indians, “Man” is a dazzling accomplishment, a vivid tapestry of all the opposing qualities that made the old west the basis of so many great movies. In a virtuoso turn, Hoffman plays Crabb from teenager to 121-year-old man, and early on, even gets a bath from a sexually repressed Christian lady (Faye Dunaway).


    Raging Bull (1980)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In 1941, real-life boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) spurns the mob, who want a piece of him, in his quest for the middleweight title. With the help of Joey (Joe Pesci), his brother and manager, Jake wins the championship belt, then loses it to Sugar Ray Robinson. As his career spirals downward, Jake bloats up and physically abuses Joey and his own teenage wife Vicky (Cathy Moriarty). Alienated from everyone and wrestling with emotional demons, the relentlessly self-destructive Jake searches for some semblance of inner peace.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on LaMotta’s memoirs and filmed in gorgeous black-and-white, Martin Scorsese’s gritty, no-holds-barred drama-possibly his greatest-tackles the familiar theme of redemption with blunt force. Oscar winner De Niro, who famously packed on 50 pounds to do the “fat” scenes, is riveting as the brutish Jake, whose primary talent lies in the amount of punishment he can take in the ring. The fight sequences-raw, sweaty, and savage-are bravura pieces of filmmaking. “Raging Bull” may be hard for some viewers to sit through, but Scorsese ultimately leads his protagonist, and us, to a state of grace.


    The Machinist (2004)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Haunted by nightmarish visions of the past, grossly emaciated machine-shop worker Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) has not slept in a year. And despite his friendships with chipper airport café waitress Marie (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), and kindly hooker Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Trevor is slowly losing his grip on sanity. Menacing stick-figure drawings begin appearing in his apartment, and then Trevor meets a mysterious co-worker whose appearance presages a deadly accident. But is this person real or imagined?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Anderson’s eerie psychological thriller is an intelligent study of guilt and repression featuring a disturbing lead performance by Bale. Talk about dedication: the actor dropped a shocking 63 pounds to immerse himself in the role of Reznik, a “living skeleton.” It is hard to see the hulking star of “American Psycho” so gaunt and sickeningly starved, but it serves the character’s sympathetic, soul-annihilating psychosis. Leigh and Sanchez-Gijon provide excellent support, as does Mr. Clean look-alike John Sharian, playing a demonic, scarily deformed factory worker who may or may not be a phantasm. Filmed in metallic blues and grays for added effect, “The Machinist” is a paranoid, memorably creepy puzzler.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • January 25, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Goose

    by Sam Hutchins

    The next day we got a relatively late start. For once even I wasn’t complaining about taking our time leaving the hotel. After a healthy start in the afternoon Darius and I wound up drinking in the hotel bar pretty late into the evening. That man is just the kind of troublemaker I love but should not be around. He worked his charms to put us at a table with a pair of rather attractive blondes, one mid forties and the other in her early twenties. Being in my cups as I was it took a bit of time for me to figure out that they were mother and daughter, the former in town on business and the latter attending university locally. It got a little strange as the mother made a pretty open play for me. Even though the daughter seemed fine with it I was a little uncomfortable. I defused the situation by walking her outside and around the corner before politely making my excuses. In retrospect I definitely made the right call, with memories of a sweet bit of making out in the rain preferable to a walk of shame from her hotel to mine the morning after.

    We loaded up the truck to head back to the Blues City Cafe for some better photos. They usually turn out a little better in the light of day and before you’ve put away a dozen drinks. Also, buzzed as I was I had somehow managed to get the manager of the place on the phone the night before. I’m professional like that. Goose was a very nice and welcoming fellow but I had my concerns. As gracious and laid-back a good old boy as he seemed, you don’t run a joint right on the main strip like that without being pretty sharp. I’d been taken in by the cornpone, aw-shucks attitude before so I wanted to meet in person and take the measure of the man.

    Goose turned out to be a nice guy, and did his damndest to buy us breakfast. Big charred hunks of sirloin are the best thing possible late at night and the last thing you want in the early morning. Amazing the difference a few hours makes. I accepted a cup of coffee and pulled him aside for a very frank talk. I laid my cards right on the table, letting him know we liked the place, had very little money, but still wanted to work there. He clearly was a sharp man behind his good ole boy persona, sharp enough to see that I was leveling with him. One of the toughest parts of the job is gauging whether someone will do an honest deal with you or instead lead you down the path and jack up the rate at the last moment. My best tactic is impressing upon someone that I can be a very serious man and Goose got the message. I felt confident we could come to terms.

    Moving on, Kar Wai expressed an interest in seeing some seedy motels. We had already seen a fair amount of the poorer neighborhoods in Memphis and they were too impoverished even to support any sort of lodging. My gut was to head towards Graceland. It seemed like a logical place for that sort of location and failing that we’d at least get to take the tour. Turns out the instinct was a good one.

    Heading north out of Memphis, Rte. 51 is named after Danny Thomas. South of town it turns into Elvis Presley Boulevard. The strip leading up to Graceland is wall-to-wall souvenir shops, greasy restaurants, and sleazy motels. The body of work suggests that Kar Wai has an affinity for the louche life, and some of my experiences to date had born this out. What happened this particular afternoon, however, was much further out there than I ever could have guessed.

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

  • January 21, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Blues City Cafe

    by Sam Hutchins

    I’ve never thought of the Chinese as a drinking culture. The Japanese certainly drink. Two of my favorite spots are the Japanese whiskey bar where my wife and I went on our first date and a basement sake den where I’ve ended a few nights face down on the floor. The English and Irish don’t even need explanation. I’ve frequented a Bulgarian bar and Les Mykyta at the Ukranian National Home, both of which offered cold vodka and friendly immigrant women. Once had a Rastafarian pass me moonshine in the hills of Dominica. The Koreans have their shoju. Despite my interest in expanding my cultural knowledge through booze sodden explorations, I hadn’t had any luck drinking with the Chinese. The closest I came was the night I wound up in a karaoke bar hidden deep in a warren of shops in Chinatown. Turned out the patrons really were there to sing, and only seemed to drink enough to justify a shot at the mic.

    Kar Wai turned me around on this. The man appreciates a good cocktail. Interesting, as he is very quietly a bit of a control freak. Still he allows himself some quality drinking time. Better yet, he’s a whiskey man. He didn’t seem to drink that often but when he was ready he would put the time and effort into it. His m.o. is to order good whiskey and sip it slowly, having quite a few over the course of a long evening. His Producer Jackie is even more of a drinker. She’s always challenging people to chug, ordering another round for the table and generally keeping it going. At some point in the evening she typically winds up snogging with some lucky victim. In other words, a perfect drinking companion.

    After inadvertently discovering the National Civil Rights Museum it was time for a stiff belt. Kar Wai’s suggestion that we do such was entirely welcome. I mentioned that we were close to Beale Street and suggested that we have a look for a good spot there. Beale Street is Memphis’ main nightlife district. I had been told this by one of the cute waitresses at the Arcade Restaurant right before she very politely shot down my pickup attempt. Needing a bit of liquid therapy we decided to heed her advice and set out in that direction.

    The relevant part of Beale Street runs about four blocks and is wall-to-wall bars, music venues and restaurants. Arriving there on a weekday afternoon, things were pretty quiet, but the bars were open. To be honest it wasn’t really our sort of place. I’m clearly all for enjoying myself, but it felt a little manufactured there. If the street you are drinking on has a Hard Rock Café, you are drinking on the wrong street. Even worse was a joint we wandered into called Silky O’Sullivans. You want a good drinking environment you can usually count on the Irish, no? Not in this place. Turns out they serve Hurricanes and other silly drinks and insist on celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day every day of the year. Considering that it is a holiday that brings out every yahoo who can’t hold his liquor and claims Irish heritage it’s a pretty hellacious experience for a guy like me, who can hold his booze and is of Irish heritage. The place felt like a bad Monty Python sketch. As my very wise Uncle Terry once said, “If there is a hell it’s an Irish bar on St. Patrick’s Day.”

    We bounced around for a few hours, failing to find a place that really felt right. Awful as each spot was, we still threw down a quick one at each stop. At least it successfully got our minds off of the Lorraine Motel. Nothing distracts quite like an easy subject for mockery, and we had no shortage. As evening came on we needed to put a little food in our stomachs. Looking around, nothing seemed particularly promising. Admittedly, our standards were high as Memphis is such a great food town. Making a few passes up and down the strip and not finding a good-looking spot, we began making our way back to the truck. Just before we got to it, however, a place caught Kar Wai’s eye.

    “Let’s go there,” he said, indicating a place called the Blues City Cafe.

    It was a slightly odd place. Felt a little like the other places on the strip with the forced attempt at creating an atmosphere. This place was a little rougher around the edges, though, and seemed more like a local, homegrown effort. Not completely terrible I suppose. They specialized in serving steaks by the pound, so we ordered up a four-pound sirloin to split amongst us. It wasn’t half bad, and I have pretty high standards when it comes to meat. Then Kar Wai caught me off-guard once again.

    “We should take pictures. I like this more than the other place.”

    Better than The Arcade? How odd. The Arcade was the real thing, a great old place that had earned its character the honest way. Blues City Cafe had some nicely battered old bones to it, but those were overlaid with cheesy faux roadhouse type signs like you see in chain restaurants. The only saving grace was that they clearly didn’t have the bankroll to completely fuck it up. Blues City did have its advantages, though, once I took a measured look at it. More room to work in, for starters. Kar Wai continually said it wasn’t important but all my experience says otherwise. This new place also sat on a corner and had great windows. The kitchen was open, giving you another interior space to work with. Also, it had lots and lots of neon. Ultimately what it came down to was that Blues City had one particular table that Kar Wai loved. With the economy of his shooting style one small corner of a place was all he claimed to need. I did have real concerns about our ability to afford a place on a main drag like this, but I am a solid negotiator and enjoy a challenge. We finished our beers, shot some pictures and moved on.

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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